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Does Labour want to win anymore?

Both sides in the leadership election are speaking a language the voters it needs barely understand, says John Denham.

A re-elected Jeremy Corbyn will apparently offer Labour support for an early election. Opposition leaders often make these calls, while praying to be ignored; they usually want elections they can win. A transformed Labour Party may no longer be following the same logic. For the first time in 100 years, Labour is conceiving electoral defeat as a potential strategic victory. The idea is growing that maybe Labour can’t win a majority, but perhaps it doesn’t need to. The dangerous political vacuum it leaves can only benefit the right.

The respected former Channel 4 economic correspondent Paul Mason has emerged as one of the most public theoreticians and strategists of Corbynism. He doesn’t speak for Corbyn but his inclusion in a recent conclave at Unite training centre confirms his closeness to the leadership. Writing in July he predicted that “Labour will become the first mainstream party in a western democracy to ditch neoliberalism and then take power”.

A crushing parliamentary majority would seem a basic prerequisite to overcome inevitable opposition to such a radical government. Mason’s ambitions are much lower. He calls for electoral pacts and deals with the Greens and Plaid – “and - if possible - the LibDems” to prevent the Tories getting a majority in the next election. “Taking power” turns out to be sharing power with those who recently supported the Tories.

This curious mixture of political optimism and electoral pessimism reflects the Corbynista belief in the power of social movements: limited but radical electoral representation couples with popular campaigning to transform the political environment. The problem is that tails - no matter how frisky - do not wag dogs. Social movements can set agendas and shape opinion, but transformational politics require political power. Many European radical parties have some parliamentary representation and links to active social movements. Without exception, they remain irrelevant or split when confronted with the realities of power.

The electoral pessimism is much better founded. Mason has an honest appraisal of the electoral appeal and ambitions of Corbynism: “Labour’s heartland is now in the big cities, among the salariat and among the globally orientated, educated part of the workforce”.  This may well be true. The party was moving in this direction a long time before Corbyn.  But the implications are profound. Many current Labour MPs don’t represent seats in the big cities and university towns. Huge numbers of their voters are not like Labour members. Many of Labour’s essential English target seats - particularly if it cannot recover in Scotland - have few of these voters either. They do have a lot who voted Conservative or Ukip in 2015.

The gap between the well-educated salariat that dominates Labour and voters whose lives are very different is huge and growing. It is as much cultural as political - socially conservative, with a strong sense of national (and increasingly English) identity, concerned about immigration, worried about their own finances and those of the public. Many of them used to be Labour, more need to be. But to them, the urban elite is part of the problem, not the core of the answer. The ‘progressive majority’ that dominated the 1980s and 1990s has disappeared. Electoral reform - which I have supported all my life - no longer unlocks the left but boosts the right.

Labour members have every right to build a party that appeals to people like themselves. But it is leaving a deepening crisis of political representation. Millions of people have been on the wrong side of social, economic and political change for the past 30 years but don’t share the assumptions of the urban salariat. Who wants to speak for them? Across western Europe social democratic parties are losing the votes of the same sections of society, and it’s no different here. Tim Farron’s  “party of the 48 per cent” sounds like a declaration of war to largely Brexit voters; so did Smith’s "second referendum". Ukip has tapped into “these voters” in the past; Theresa May would clearly like to. The left has itself to blame if they are successful in the future.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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